A visit to Usa, the Japanese city that knows how to win

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

It is the time of the year when many people get nervous about winning and losing. Students are cramming hard to pass entrance exams to get into the high schools and colleges of their dreams. Their families and friends watch their words so as not to demoralize them, going out of their way to avoid using phrases such as suberu (slip), ochiru (fall) and korobu (tumble). Food companies market limited editions of special snacks and sweets, using puns and special packaging to style them as “good luck” charms for exam-takers.

So when I recently received an offer from the government of the rather obscure city of Usa, Oita Prefecture, in Japan’s southern Kyushu region, to visit the city and experience how kachi (victory) oriented the city is, I thought it might be worth investigating its claims.

One of the first places I was taken to upon descending at Oita Airport was Futaba no Sato ([0978] 33-5255; www.futabayama.jp/futabanosato), a museum dedicated to the late sumo champion Futabayama Sadaji (1912-1968), who was born and raised in Usa. Museum director Fumitoshi Shingai passionately recalled episode after episode surrounding the legendary wrestler, whose winning streak — 69 consecutive bouts between 1936 and 1938 — is yet to be broken to this day.

Outside the museum, built by the city government in 1999, is a stone statue — which Shingai boasted is a “power spot.” The imposing statue bears the names and handprints of the three sumo wrestlers who have won more than 60 consecutive bouts; along with Futabayama, it features Tanikaze Kajinosuke, who recorded 63 straight wins between 1778 and 1782, and Mongolia-born Sho Hakuho, whose winning streak stopped at 63, matching Tanikaze’s, in 2010. “Visitors come here first and touch the handprints to get power,” said Shingai.

Inside, visitors are greeted by a giant statue (1.5 times larger than life) of Futabayama standing fearlessly and imposingly in a mawashi (apron). Walking through the museum, it was obvious what great pride the city’s people have in Futabayama: A detailed chronology of his life covers the wall, while memorabilia, ranging from teacups to his drawing of a daruma (good-luck doll in the shape of Bodhidharma), fill the glass cases.

The wrestler’s overwhelming strength, though, seems to have come from his impoverished background and his hungry spirit. “He had two handicaps: At the age of 6, he lost the sight of his right eye in an accident; and later, while helping his father’s work, he cut the tip off his right little finger,” Shingai said, as if he had been the giant’s pal, while admitting he never met or talked to the wrestler directly. “He overcame these difficulties through rigorous practice.”

The bigger “power spot” in Usa, however, is elsewhere. Built as early as 725, Usa Shrine ([0978] 37-0001; www.usajinguu.com) has three major buildings enshrining not just one but three gods in its expansive premises and welcomes 1.8 million visitors per year. Not only that, the shrine, I was told, ranks as the most prestigious among a group of 40,000 Shinto holy places enshrining Hachiman-jin, the god of archery and war.

Thus the shrine has been popular among people wishing for good luck in their own “battles,” including entrance exams and qualification tests for doctors. Indeed, at the shrine I saw hundreds of wooden ema plaques hung on boards, on which visitors had left handwritten messages praying for victories, even putting the specific names of schools they were applying for.

And unlike shrines in Tokyo, it comes with long sandō (entrance paths) and lots of mini-shrines and gates, surrounded by the woods. On the day of our visit, it suddenly started snowing, and though it was freezing cold, it added to the mystique and serenity of the shrine.

So how come had I never heard of the shrine, or the city’s name, before this trip? “We have lots of stuff to show to people, but we haven’t been good at PR,” is what one Usa official told me. In fact, the city has a lot of attractions besides the Futabayama museum and Usa Shrine, and it is also quite original in its approach toward local cuisine, which is largely centered around, well, green onions.

The city has in recent years been pushing the production, consumption and sale of green onions (scallions) as a fortune-bringing venture. During the two days I stayed there, I think I consumed more green onions than I’ve ever had in a whole month.

And it’s not just any random green onions, but a branded one. Oita Aji-ichi Negi, a variety of small, young green onions grown in greenhouses only, is low on pesticides and is characterized by its crunchy texture and sweet taste.

While other cities in northern Oita also produce the small green onions, a majority of which are shipped to Tokyo to be used as toppings for noodles and other dishes, Usa has come up with a variety of unconventional dishes through which to savor the vegetable.

For example, Mitoka Taguchi, the cheerful proprietor of the local inn/restaurant Kikusui Ryokan ([0978] 32-0442), serves negi shabu-shabu. Anyone who’s eaten shabu-shabu would have an image of thinly-sliced, usually expensive beef or pork lightly boiled by hand, but what you see stacked up on a big plate at this restaurant are the green onions only. (OK, the expensive beef and thin slices of hamo [pike conger] are served up later.)

Then at Tatsumi ([0978] 32-2076; w01.tp1.jp/~sr07889829), a cozy izakaya (pub) in the city, master Katsunori Imanaga serves green-onion tempura, green onions rolled up in tai (sea bream) sashimi and many other scallion dishes.

Furthermore, Usa is blessed with a “soul food” that sets it apart from other farming communities: kara-age (deep-fried chicken). The city claims that it is the birthplace of the kara-age specialty stores that are now all the rage in Japan; back in 1964, an izakaya named Shosuke opened a takeout-only shop serving just kara-age. Usa today has 54 such locally owned specialty shops selling deep-fried chicken, each with a different taste and its own secret marinade, according to Yuko Yoshitake, an Usa city official and the foremost expert on the city’s kara-age “scene.”

For decades, it had been the Usa thing for locals to order huge volumes of fried chicken from these shops for parties and during the New Year’s and O-bon holiday seasons, when family members and relatives get together. In 2006, however, a map of kara-age specialty shops created by Yoshitake and three other city government officials came to the attention of TV stations, and Usa came to be seen as Japan’s kara-age capital, she says.

One thing led to another and soon the Usa Kara-age Association was established, while a stone statue now marks the birthplace of kara-age specialty shops.

But Yoshitake, who works in the city government’s fisheries section, insists this is purely her volunteer (and after-hours) activity, even paying out of her own pocket to have the stone statue built with contributions from the three other officials.

Using the city’s name as a pun — Usa is pronounced “oo-sa” but is spelled the same as USA — Yoshitake is busy these days donning a Star-Spangled Banner hat and promoting the food in and outside of the city, in her role as the first “president” of the Usa kara-age republic. As tacky as it sounds, it is further proof that Usa, a city of mere 58,000 people, has a lot to boast about.

A visit to Usa surely felt like a winner to me — not just for exam-takers but anyone interested in exploring a part of Japan brimming with character. It was what you might call a lucky break.

Usa is an hour’s drive from Oita Airport, which is a 100-minute flight from Haneda Airport; 100 minutes by train from Fukuoka Station; or 30 minutes by express train from Beppu, a major hot-spring resort. For more information, visit www.usa-kanko.jp or call the Tourism Bureau on (0978) 37-0202.